‘Harlem Nutcracker’ Star Turns Mideast Conflict Into Sexy Dance

Abraham, Sarah and Hagar
Dancers portray the biblical figures of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar in a piece choreographed by Tony nominee Donald Byrd. The work, which explores the Israel-Palestinian conflict, was performed in Jerusalem. Source: American Academy via Bloomberg

Abraham makes love to his wife Sarah and then forces himself on her maid Hagar. Later Ishmael grabs Abraham’s face in a pas de deux, daring him to recognize and acknowledge his fatherhood.

The scene, danced by an Israeli Jewish Abraham and female Palestinian Ishmael, comes at the end of “Maybe a Genesis.” The show lends a Biblical slant to the Middle East dispute.

“The idea wasn’t to confront the conflict directly,” says Donald Byrd, its choreographer. “We go back to the narrative of Genesis and look at it as one big dysfunctional family -- like, ‘who gets the land when the old man is dead?’”

The piece is the second attempt at the subject by Byrd, who is best known for creating “The Harlem Nutcracker” and was a Tony nominee for the Broadway show “The Color Purple.”

“One of the hardest things for people to do around this conflict is to listen to what the other side has to say,” Byrd says in an interview.

Chaste Sarah, wearing a long dress, prays to God before the coupling with Abraham. Soon Abraham is enticed by Hagar’s tight shirt and dark curls. He throws himself onto her. The servant becomes pregnant and is banished along with Ishmael.

“This kind of work between artists should happen more,” says Or Avishay, 26, who dances the part of Hagar and was at first hesitant about the political undertones. She was working with Shaden Abu Elassal, an Israeli Arab from Nazareth who describes herself as Palestinian and dances as Ishmael.

“Donald is making us meet without giving any political opinion,” says Anat Yaffe, 29, who plays Sarah.

Seattle Debut

The work-in-progress developed at the American Academy in Jerusalem, which is modeled on the American Academies in Rome and Berlin. The program aims to make Jerusalem an international destination for culture.

Byrd’s first piece on the subject was performed in Seattle, where he is artistic director of the Spectrum Dance Theater. He spent much time during that attempt trying to get U.S. visas for the Palestinian and Israeli dancers. This time, he decided to come to them.

“The point of being in Jerusalem is that you are in a complex city and need to have a clue as to all of the nuances,” says Academy founder Elise Bernhardt. “Donald managed to do something with people from both sides of the wall,” says Bernhardt, executive director of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will not return to negotiations unless Israel stops West Bank building. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the work stopped for 10 months and he won’t order another halt.

Eurovision Entry

One of the more famous collaborations between Israeli Jews and Arabs was the 2009 Israeli entry in the Eurovision Song Contest: “There Must Be Another Way,” sung by Ahinoam Nini and Mira Awad, who, like Byrd, encountered objections on both sides.

The role of art, says Byrd, is to “be evocative and provocative, suggestive, so that people start thinking about the conflict a bit differently.”

Byrd, one of 52 recipients of the United States Artists $50,000 awards in 2011, plans to use some of the money to return to Israel and expand by including dancers from Ramallah in the West Bank.

Gershon Baskin, founder of Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, an institution dedicated to ending the conflict, says projects like Byrd’s “create an environment where making peace is possible.”

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